Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Year In Books

Another great year of book reading is … well, “in the books.” Here’s my list of the (mostly) good stuff I got through:

Book of the Year

Going Clear (Lawrence Wright): Mesmerizing exposé of the Church of Scientology. The first half, which is essentially a condensed biography of founder L. Ron Hubbard, is worth the price of admission, but the second half, which focuses on the Church’s expansive reach into celebrity culture (and its heavy-handed attitude toward naysayers), turns a good book into a superlative one.


The Unwinding (George Packer): Likely to become the definitive account of the Great Recession.

Dallas 1963 (Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis): After 50 years, you would think authors would be out of fresh angles to look at the Kennedy Assassination, but you would be wrong. This fascinating look at the right-wing movement in America during JFK’s time has eerie parallels to the odious smears President Obama endures.

Honorable Mention

The Books They Gave Me (Jen Adams): Not weighty enough for consideration as a top-tier book, but in the grand tradition of Important Artifacts (Leanne Shapton), Adams collects short stories of books given to people by family members, loved ones and friends. What you end up with is a tapestry of the bittersweet, mournful and romantic that makes us human.  

Everything Else

What Are You Looking At? (Will Gompertz): Like Art History 101 in a single, highly readable tome. Bonus? Will allow you to spot everything from a Monet to a Hirst from 50 paces away.

On Saudi Arabia (Karen Elliott House): Essential reading for anyone interested in understanding this critical Middle Eastern country.

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson): I found this mid-1990s Bryson story about his attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trial at a used book sale for 50 cents. As with all things Bryson-ian, it’s granular and easy-to-read, but in this case, the story flagged about half-way through.

Good Prose (Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd): A writer and his long-time editor go Deliverance-dueling-banjoes with tips on improving your writing. Probably should have paid closer attention.

Pound Foolish (Helaine Olen): Insipid prose mixed with bourgeois snootiness for $200, Alex.

Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain): Deliberative and analytical beats brassy and obnoxious. Got it.

On the Map (Simon Garfield): 2012 Book of the Year (Just My Type) winner Simon Garfield’s follow-up surveys a millennia of map-making. Like Bryson, Garfield’s pointillist style gets you deep in the weeds on arcane subject matter. Highly recommended for the nerd on your holiday list.

Salt, Sugar, Fat (Michael Moss): Confirms everything you would suspect about BIG SNACK – they spend millions and millions of dollars figuring out ways to get you to eat more and more of their unhealthy products in a way that will make you crave more and not feel full. Deeply researched, well written and utterly depressing to anyone who cares about nutrition, healthy eating and fitness.

The Story of English in 100 Words (David Crystal): Once upon a time, new words entered our vernacular sporadically and through fusion with other native tongues. Now, the OED is adding “frenemy” and “selfie” without batting an eyelash. Oh, how times have changed.

The Way of the Knife (Mark Mazzetti): I expected to like this book about our counter-intelligence operations more than I did. The book didn’t tell me a lot I did not already know, but for those not well-versed in our post-9/11 black ops world, you might like it.

1969, The Year Everything Changed (Rob Kirkpatrick): Ended up being part one of a three-part survey I did of the 1970s.

Confessions of a Sociopath, A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight (M.E. Thomas): And the award for my least favorite book of the year goes to …

My full review:

1973 Nervous Breakdown (Andreas Killen): Part two of the Me Decade survey.

Banksy, The Man Behind the Wall (Will Ellsworth-Jones): I became a bit of a Banksy enthusiast after seeing his brilliant documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, but this unauthorized biography doesn’t shed much additional detail on the elusive graffiti artist.

Attached, The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love (Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller): What happens when you go through a really bad break-up and hope to find some answers in the self-help section of the library.

The Skies Belong To Us (Brendan Koerner): This book has landed on some end-of-the-year “best of” lists and while I enjoyed learning about skyjacking in America in the early 1970s, I did not think it was quite as good as others apparently did.

Lost Girls, An Unsolved American Mystery (Robert Kolker): Ditto for this book about four young women who came from different backgrounds but all met the same fate – trafficking themselves for sex on the Internet and ending up dead on Long Island. In its way, a story of the economic underclass in America and what lengths people will do to escape it.

Difficult Men (Brett Martin): An examination of the rise of the anti-hero (e.g., Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White) in the so-called “Golden Age” of modern TV. If you’re a fan of any of these serious dramas, you will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at how they came into being and why they are so influential in popular culture.

Strange Rebels (Christian Caryl): In ten years, we went from Nixon’s realpolitik, Brezhnev and Mao to the rise of Khomeini, Thatcher, Deng and Pope John Paul II. The third part of my 1970s journey.

This Town (Mark Leibovich): The “it” book of the summer for the political class. Unironically reveals D.C. at its venal core.

JFK’s Last Hundred Days (Thurston Clarke): Here is another largely fresh take on the Kennedy years by studying the months between the death of JFK’s son Patrick and his assassination in Dallas. Clarke’s book is exhaustively researched and shows a President growing into his job, mastering most of the details and supremely confident about the future, which makes his untimely death all the more tragic.

Lapsing Into A Comma (Bill Walsh): I’m a sucker for a good English usage book.

Yes, I Could Care Less (Bill Walsh): Or two.

One Summer: America 1927 (Bill Bryson): Anything Bryson writes, I will read, but this book, which clocked in at 460 plus pages, felt overlong, particularly because it started out as a lengthy examination of various aviators’ attempts to cross the Atlantic and then devolved into a lot of smaller stories about anything and everything historical/cultural that went down during this time period.

Double Down: Game Change 2012 (Mark Halperin & John Heilemann): Junk food for political obsessives.

Hello, Goodbye, Hello (Craig Brown): A sort of six-degrees-of-separation leitmotif where chance encounters between two famous people link everyone from Hitler to Elvis in pithy, 1,001 word (and not one word longer!) stories.

My full review:

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